Consumers expect two-way communication with brands that is timely, relevant, human and most importantly, accurate.

Companies and brands that have embraced this reality are in a much better position to engage customers, build relationships with these customers and create advocacy. Those with phobias about technology and customer engagement will find growth and creating customer loyalty increasingly difficult.

Shift from one expert to many. One industry that is highly affected by the growth of this trend is health care. For health care systems, doctors have traditionally been the experts and patients took direction solely from their family physician.

That no longer happens in many cases as consumers seek information from search engines, websites and health care ratings organizations that are all perceived as “experts.” And in light of health care reform, the amount of misinformation that is accessible and shared is enormous.

These information shifts, however, are not exclusive to the health care industry. We have seen this in virtually every industry we represent, from automotive to health care to home and building products. The categories and industries may be different, but the shift in consumer behavior as a direct result of digital technology is similar.

Brands no longer have complete control of their message, and the best thing to do is take advantage of that by embracing digital influencers and developing strategies that leverage influencers rather than trying to ignore their presence.

Brand advocates. Every brand has the power to create advocacy. This is what leads to the influence-the-influencer approach to marketing. By embracing technology, brands can engage consumers to the following:

 

 

  • Gain additional perspective on your brand, products and services. Give them online venues to write about positive experiences.

 

 

  • Acknowledge their feedback through Facebook posts, forums, comments and tweets. Answer their questions, address their concerns and correct any information that is incorrect. Take them offline so you do not offend them or create a negative perception for you.

 

 

  • Delight and enlighten them: Content is king. Photos, videos, infographics … any way you can engage your audience, do it! Create content that is relevant, timely and focused on what consumers want and need. Optimize content for search engines. Create blogs with relevant and fresh content. Drive consumers to your website and ensure proper analytics are set up so that you can track their behavior.

 

 

  • Lastly, track and measure! Determine what your goals are and what your key performance indicators will be prior to any endeavor.

 

 

Relationship building. To be authentic, brands must focus on helping consumers and not selling them. Brands do this by ensuring messaging is targeted and relevant at every touchpoint in the customer’s journey.

Advocacy building. The best way to build authentic advocacy with consumers is to understand their concerns and mindset. This can be accomplished by incorporating a digital listening and responding strategy that includes a specific and timely process for consumer support, to acknowledge their feedback through social media and other means. The goal is to create mutually beneficial relationships with consumers.

Future Team. A team of this type helps keep us ahead of cultural shifts. Their insights help us create and implement metrics to support a brand through all touchpoints and help offset competing brands’ efforts. You should do this too.

Embrace digital technology now to capitalize on this important way your target consumes information.

Maggie Harris is vice president of account services at Hitchcock Fleming & Associates (hfa). Reach her at www.teamhfa.com.

Published in Columnist

Many executives do not view the content they distribute as intertwined with their organization’s unique product or service. However, the two are interchangeable. Your product or service has differentiators that cause your clients to select you instead of the competition. Those same factors apply in content marketing.

If your goal is to engage prospects and ultimately lead them to conversion, you must create content that keeps them engaged. Success comes from creating consumable pieces of content that together form a singular thought leadership message and distributing those pieces across multiple channels. You never know through what channel someone will engage with your brand (or branded content), so the message needs to be consistent.

There are a few simple rules to doing this. Your content and what you’re selling should meet four criteria. It must be:

 

 

  • Useful

 

 

  • Relevant

 

 

  • Differentiated

 

 

  • Available

 

 

Useful means the content, as well as your product or service, has a defined use for a target audience. It addresses:

 

 

  • How do I use this?

 

 

  • How does this help me?

 

 

  • What problem does this solve for me?

 

 

Here’s an example: According to a recent IDC Research report, 49 percent of the entire U.S. population currently uses a smartphone. By 2017, that number is expected to reach 68 percent. That means that within four years, more than two out of every three Americans — regardless of age — will be connected via smartphone. Therefore, a useful product a company might offer could be a solar-operated phone charger. And useful content to distribute to a target audience may include “How to make your daily life easier with these top five iPhone apps.”

To be Relevant, the product, service or content must be new and interesting, and mean something to the market or industry. Your audience will ask:

 

 

  • What does this mean to me?

 

 

  • Do I need this?

 

 

Let’s say your organization provides a website portal that connects insurance companies. New and interesting content that means something might be, “How your health care plan will be affected by reform . . . and what you can do to prepare for it.”

In a world filled with noise, you must demonstrate how what you do is Differentiated from competitors and explain:

 

 

  • How does your content, product and service compare to the competition?

 

 

  • Is it unique?

 

 

Let’s go back to the smartphone example. If you sell or service iPhones and Android-platform models, think about creating engaging content that examines the needs of today’s smartphone user, and then go beyond the basic functionality.

It’s also imperative to understand your target audience and the target audience for each product. Android-based smartphones are primarily aimed at businesspeople. iPhones, for all their bells and whistles, are not. This differentiation has led to a lot of confusion in the marketplace when consumers compare one against the other. Understanding this allows smart marketers to create engaging content such as “The top 10 needs of businesspeople: A comparison of Android phones vs. iPhones.”

Finally, your product, service and content must be Available and easily obtained in any channel.

If you run a benefits company that works with employers, for example, health care reform provides a timely opportunity to help clients make sense of the landscape. This might entail delivering a variety of consumable content that’s available to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, through any channel.

This could include a video that explains the difference in options available to employers. It could be a social media campaign that outlines the top five differences between the health care insurance exchanges and employer-sponsored health care. Or, it may be a series of print mailers or webinars, or even a dedicated microsite that’s filled with content that details what employers need to know.

When your goal is creating engaging content, your ability to consider — and address — each of these factors may be what’s required to transform engagement into measurable conversion.

Published in National

This is no fish story. Instead, this column is about one of the most important roles an owner or CEO must fulfill on an ongoing basis.

Leaders spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with the issues du jour. These range from managing people, wooing and cajoling customers, creating strategies, searching for elusive answers and just about everything in between. These are all good and necessary tasks and undertakings. Too frequently, however, these same leaders delegate this effort to others or ignore it altogether. To be “in the game,” you have to know when to fish or cut bait.

Successful fishermen know that to catch a fish they have to sometimes cast their lines dozens of times just to get a nibble or bite. The first bite might not result in reeling in that big fish. Frequently, a nibble is just a tipoff as to where the fish are swimming.

The same applies to reaching out — casting a line, if you will, to explore new, many times unorthodox, opportunities for your organization. These opportunities can be finding a competitor to buy, discovering an unlikely yet complementary business to partner with or snagging a new customer from an industry that had heretofore gone undiscovered.

All of this takes setting a portion of your time to investigate unique situations, as well as a healthy dose of creativity and the ability to think well beyond the most obvious.

Too many times even the most accomplished executives lack the motivation to look for ideas in unlikely places. Some would believe that it’s unproductive to spend a significant amount of time on untested “what ifs.” Just like sage fishermen, executives can also cultivate their own places to troll.

Of course, networking is a good starting point, particularly with people unrelated to your business, where sometimes one may fortuitously stumble onto a new idea that leads to a payoff.

Other times, a hot lead might come from simply reading trade papers, general media reports and just surfing the Internet. The creative twist is reading material that doesn’t necessarily apply to your own industry or to anything even close to what you do. New ideas come disguised in many forms and are frequently hidden in a variety of nooks and crannies. This means training yourself to read between the lines.

Once something piques your imagination, the next step is to follow through and call the other company or send an inquiry by email to state that it might be worth a short conversation to explore potential mutually beneficial arrangements. This can at times be a bit frustrating and futile. That's when you cut bait and start anew.

However, reaching out to someone today could materialize into something of substance tomorrow. The often skipped but critical next step, even after hitting a seemingly dead end, is to always close the loop with whomever you made contact. Even if there is no apparent fit or interest at the moment, it’s easy and polite to send a short note of thanks and attach your one-paragraph “elevator” pitch.

That same person just might be casting him or herself, be it in a month or even a year later, and make contact with a different organization that’s not a fit for him or her, but recall you because you followed through and created awareness about your story.

This just might lead the person with whom you first spoke to call you because you had had the courtesy to send that note. Bingo — you just got a bite all because of continuing to cast your line.

Good CEOs and honest fishermen also have one other important characteristic in common: humility. They know that when a line is cast it won’t result in a catch every time. But if nothing is ventured, it’s guaranteed there will be nothing gained. Don’t let that big one get away. Just keep casting.

Published in National

As an organization grows, changes are inevitable.

New employees are added, promotions are made and job responsibilities shift.

But any time you have change, you have the potential for conflict. Few people are comfortable with change, and each person will react differently in making the adjustments necessary to move forward with the company.

The most important thing a CEO can do is to be active in confronting potential conflict. Conflict goes hand-in-hand with change. Employees begin to question management, co-workers and even themselves as they are forced outside of their comfort zones. Those questions can lead to misunderstandings that can lead to conflict, and that will ultimately slow your growth.

Don’t passively avoid potential conflict. Instead, actively engage members of your organization by providing the necessary forums both for you to communicate your strategy and vision and for them to communicate their concerns back to you. An active conversation will help drive your vision for the company through the organization and will also help foster your next generation of leaders as they take a more active role.

Only when employees are challenged to think — and to challenge you — will you maximize your organization’s potential. Do you want employees who don’t speak up when they recognize what may be a fatal flaw in your grand strategy? Or would you rather have employees who are actively thinking about the big-picture goals of the company and doing their part to contribute?

Regardless of what size company you run, it comes down to a simple choice.

It’s a choice between having employees acting like robots or acting like people. If you choose robots, you will have to have all the answers. If you choose people, you only have to have some of the answers because the employees will help you find the rest.

Engaging employees in conversations, meetings and decision-making helps them take ownership and helps you create a happier work force. If they are not allowed to speak, gossip and rumors will drag down your productivity.

Actively provide two-way communication. Let employees do the talking and hear what they have to say. The results may surprise you. Those closest to the customer often know best what needs to be done to improve sales, service or efficiency.

Too many CEOs lament the lack of good people to help take them to the next level. Maybe the problem is more CEOs need to create good people rather than driving them off with a work environment that’s better suited to a good robot.

Published in Cleveland